Letter from California: No longer 'wet and wild'

When you think of California, images of tanned bodies frolicking on sunny, pristine beaches, splashing around in endless amounts of ocean water, may come to mind. While the beaches may still have an ample supply of water to utilize, California officials have decided that it’s time to mandate water use elsewhere.

Last week, California got serious with water conservation in its state due to a report which concluded that California is facing its third most severe drought on record. Beginning August 1, 2014, those in California who wash their car without a nozzle, water driveways or sidewalks, use potable water in ornamental fountains and over-water their landscape could be fined up to $500. Those who use recycled water are exempt from the fines.

Additionally, all cities must impose mandatory conservation measures or pay a fine of $10,000 a day for non-compliance, according to the State Water Resources Control Board, that voted unanimously for fines to be levied on its customers and water agencies.

San Francisco was the first to jump on the bandwagon for imposing fines for their water district customers. In fact, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission made an announcement that it will be setting up a phone number so that people in San Francisco can call and report their neighbors or others who are wasting water.

In addition, San Francisco will be sending out its ‘water police’ or staff members as they call them, to write tickets. At least San Francisco has agreed for now, to show mercy on first time offenders by issuing warnings before imposing fines.

Other cities are not as thrilled about possibly offending their consumers. Oakland, for example, fears that a 10 percent reduction in water use by its customers over the next year will cost the district $25 million in lost water sales, according to water district spokeswoman Abby Figueroa.

Also, as you might imagine, some in Northern California are placing the blame for the water waste on its Southern California neighbors. Southern California is being impugned due to their 1 percent increase in water use in May as compared to previous years.

Southern California fired back at these accusations. “When you look at a longer period of time, we’re still using less water—about 10 percent less—than we were using five years ago,” said Francie Kennedy, water conservation coordinator for San Juan Capistrano, which holds a second place ranking on the state’s list of water wasters.

Michelle Vargas, spokeswoman for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, reported that the city uses 17 percent less water currently than it did in 2009, and now uses only 129 gallons per capita per day which is well below the state average of 196.

Some cities and Homeowner Associations are also coming under scrutiny for their actions which seemingly contradict the new rules.

Recently, a couple in Southern California received a letter from their city warning them of a $500 penalty if they did not start watering their brown lawn. The letter gave the couple 60 days to restore their lawn to a greener appearance.

Gov. Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown, perhaps anticipating some HOA backlash, signed an executive order earlier this year in April, with another bill awaiting his signature, that prevents HOAs from punishing residents who scale back on landscaping. Brown made it clear through his measures that his office won’t condone those who seek to punish those trying to save water during the drought.

Perhaps California will need to return to its beaches in order to keep wet and wild for years to come. In fact, California beaches may hold the key to ending the drought.

Desalination, removing salt from ocean water so that consumers can drink it, looks like a promising alternative to mandating conservation by its consumers. Considering that agriculture uses up about 80 percent of the water in the state, conservation by individuals, will have little or no impact to conserving water anyway.

California currently has desalination plants in several locations. Carlsbad, near San Diego, is the location of the nation’s largest ocean desalination plant, with 15 more plants of its kind proposed from Los Angeles to San Francisco.

It was no easy task to build the desalination plant, however. “They went through seven or eight years of hell to get here,” said Tim Quinn, executive director of the Association of California Water Agencies. The hell Quinn speaks of included six years of government permitting, which involved both the local city council and the California Coastal Commission. There were also 14 lawsuits and appeals by environmentalists that had to be won before the December 2012 ground breaking.

Critics of desalination, cite its high cost of approximately $2,000 an acre foot, which is about what a family of five uses in a year, as the reason it will fail.

However, California has an even cheaper alternative to desalination in its WaterFX Solar Thermal, solar-powered desalination plant. WaterFX’s co-founder Aaron Mandell believes that his company is the permanent solution to California’s water woes.

The cost to consumers of Mandell’s plant would be $450 an acre-foot versus $2,000 an acre-foot for electricity-operated desalination plants.

“Eventually, if this all goes where I think it can, California will wind up with so much water it’s able to export instead of having to deal with shortages,” said Mandell.

Under Mandell’s plan, California will remain wet and wild for years to come without unnecessarily burdening its citizens to conserve water when there is a limitless supply in the ocean just waiting for someone to tap into it.